The Future of Museums: Alexandra Munroe, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
To Munroe, a successful museum is one that exists in a long-term process of self-examination and adaptation, and it must be catalytic. A crucial part of that work is to “be rigorous in redefining what catalytic means for… different eras that our society finds itself in.” This reflects her broader aspiration to shift museums away from seeing themselves simply as buildings full of precious objects but instead as institutions made for people, that use their spaces and collections as just some of the tools at their disposal.
This point resonated nicely with last week’s conversation between David and Nico Wheadon, namely the palpable frustration with the word “museum” itself: “it’s so monolithic and yet the experience that we want to have in museums, with art encounters, with public, with ideas, with technology, with books, with children, it can happen anywhere,” Munroe explained.
Opening event- Gutai- Spendid Playground; Photo by David Heald, Courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York
Recently, Munroe has found inspiration in revisiting the vision of Guggenheim’s founding director, Hillary Bay, in which curators were conceived of as a collective rather than expert-led departments. Ultimately, the tangible aspects of museums, space, curation, audience, and content, all come together to create an intangible effect—ideally, “muse-like transformation… to have your head altered, to have your consciousness altered.”
She and her colleagues at the Guggenheim have been deeply discussing how to balance the creation and display of content in a way that is true to the “DNA of the institution itself… while also interrogating… its own history and identity all the while.” An exhibition that she curates at the Guggenheim will likely have different interpretations and focal points than an exhibition at the Tate—both because the institutional context for each is different, but also because the curators putting them together are informed by their own networks of people and ideas.
In Munroe’s eyes, emphasizing the unique position of each institution requires humility—both when it comes to curatorial matters as well as relationships with local and extended communities. Even the language of inclusion needs to be considered with critical distance. The paradigm of inclusion “assum[es] that there’s a center, which everyone has to conform to,” rather than taking a step back and considering cultural institutions in a wider network context rather than as the center of its world. This is an example of the small interventions that can be made in the DNA of institutions in order to strike the balance between an institution that has the capability to foster slow, deep thought while also being responsive and current.
Shuji Mukai performing in Tsuruko; Photo by David Heald, Courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York Yamazaki’s Work (Red Cube) (1956/2013); Photo by David Heald
The importance of striving toward this balance is manifest in everything from audience strategies to staff structure and content. For example, the Guggenheim recently added paid curatorial internships for the first time, which drew a remarkable number of applications. Over time, measures like this will work against the nepotism so deeply ingrained in the world of cultural institutions.
To Munroe, investing in AR technology is another way for cultural institutions to “travel the world,” so to speak. When David asked Alexandra how she would go about starting a new cultural institution today, she replied that she would “fund the most advanced AR technology… [and] make it incredibly affordable… put a museum in your head and I would curate shows for that experience.” As the interim director of curatorial affairs at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Munroe is “envisioning whole floors being given over to this kind of immersive technological experimentation… You’re building a museum that’s going to open in the next decade, you’ve got to think about a hundred years from now.”
Chen Zhen, Precipitous Parturition, 1999; Photo by David Heald, Courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York
Alexandra Munroe, PhD, Senior Curator and Senior Advisor, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
David van der Leer, Principal, DVDL DD
Alexandra Munroe, PhD, Senior Curator and Senior Advisor, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, is a pioneering authority on modern and contemporary Asian art and transnational art studies. She has led the Guggenheim’s Asian Art Initiative since its founding in 2006 while also working on the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum Project and the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative. Munroe is Senior Curator, Asian Art and Senior Advisor, Global Arts, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and Interim Director, Curatorial Affairs, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Project.